What goes under this title in English is, of course, two separate books in Japanese. The interviews with the sarin survivors were published as Underground in 1997, and the interviews with Aum members were published as The Place that was Promised: Underground 2 in 1998. The fine print on the copyright page to the American edition acknowledges this; what it doesn’t acknowledge is that the first part as presented in translation is vastly abridged. The Japanese edition of Underground (i.e., the first part alone) is over 700 pages.
Would it kill Vintage to let readers know this?
Now, I’m not saying I would necessarily want to read 700 pages of these interviews – for reasons I’ll try to explain below, I think this is a slightly underwhelming book – but the sheer bulk of the original is part of Murakami’s ode to Studs Terkel, and that gets obscured by the polite length of the translation.
That is, with the first part, what he’s trying to do is give us an oral history (although he doesn’t quite use the term) of the Tokyo subway sarin attack, and in doing so he’s really trying to put down a self-portrait of contemporary Japan. In particular, the salaryman circa 1995.
I think these two aims – to document the tragedy, and to document the salaryman – are at cross-purposes, and that, I think, weakens the book. Any reader of Murakami’s pre-1995 fiction must sense how much resistance he feels toward the salaryman, as system, as ideal, and even as phenomenon. Almost all of Murakami’s protagonists – heroes, we might as well call them – are people who have rejected salarymanhood. Some do it out of principle, like the I in the Rat series; some do it almost by accident, like Okada Toru. But they all reject it. The true value in Underground is that it marks the moment when Murakami begins to pity and respect those who stick it out in that system, even though he doesn’t condone the system itself. The hero of “Superfrog Saves Tokyo” is a synthesis of all the salarymen in Underground.
If you read carefully, and notice the kinds of things Murakami is letting his interviewees say, it’s clear that the author is still hearing reasons to be horrified at the salaryman ideal. Again and again we hear from men who describe being nearly blinded by the sarin, vomiting, in intense pain, and yet their first thought is that they’ve got to get to work. On the one hand, sure, nobody knew quite what had happened to them – but on the other hand, what kind of inhuman system breeds this kind of extreme self-sacrifice to meaningless labor? You can almost hear the author saying, Dude, you’ve just been gassed: take the day off.
But you can’t quite hear the author saying that, because in fact all of Murakami’s own commentary, every bit of description he gives us about his interviewees, is downright reverent. As it should be: the imperative to memorialize the tragedy and its sufferers demands that these people be treated with respect. And so it turns out that every one of these men is dedicated, energetic, self-effacing, and looks young for his age. Combine this with the survivor’s guilt induced modesty of most of these interviewees, and you have a book that just doesn’t feel like it’s digging very deep. Murakami allows these interviewees to present themselves how they’d like to be seen, unchallenged, and to stop talking about the events of they day when they get uncomfortable. Maybe that’s all he could have done, and maybe there’s still considerable value in what he has done – but every time I read it I come away feeling that it could have been more.
And at least in part, I feel that way because Underground 2, the Aum interviews, is more. Here he allows us to see him pressing the interviewees, questioning them, even challenging them, in a way he couldn’t in the first book. And what emerges is a fascinating collection of widely varying views about Aum, Asahahara Shoko, and Japanese society in general. Murakami’s own comments here constitute almost a manifesto of his humanism: he has deep sympathy for these people, and insists that we see them, not as some inexplicable Other, but as ourselves.
Bringing the two together between one set of covers as the English edition does is thus appropriate, even if it is a misrepresentation. With these two books Murakami is trying to make it clear that Aum and its victims are alike in as many ways as they are different. Fanatical devotion to duty? Check. Individual ego subsumed into larger organization? Check. Sense that contemporary Japan is going to hell in a handbasket?
You bet, Mr. Wind-Up Bird.